#Synod14—Less Heat, More Light.

My lovely, Catholic mum said to me last night over dinner:
"What do you make of all this about the Church going against Pope Francis' on gays?"
Louise, who I have bored rigid with the goings on at the synod over the last week or so, looked at me and we simultaneously enunciated
I assumed she had been at The Daily Mail again, but it turned out that this was the BBC's spin on the synod's proceedings. Earlier today, my past Catenian President, Brother Paul Abbott, a dentist (I offer this as evidence of his intelligence, though some might merely accept it as evidence of masochistic predeliction) who is a loyal and faithful Catholic remarked to me:
"We're turning into the Church of England when a synod is held and the Magisterium can be altered by a democratic process". 
OUCH! That stung! But I can assure you Paul, that certainly can never happen in the Catholic Church, despite the resultant confusion from the synod and the spin of the media. As Pope Francis himself expressed unequivocally in his elaborately balanced closing speech (emphasis mine):

- One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility [trans: rigidity], that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

- The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

- The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).

- The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.

- The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…

...And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

The is the Church, our Mother! And when the Church, in the variety of her charisms, expresses herself in communion, she cannot err: it is the beauty and the strength of the sensus fidei, of that supernatural sense of the faith which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that, together, we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and learn to follow Jesus in our life. And this should never be seen as a source of confusion and discord.

I find myself deeply moved by the Pope's words here, which express what is wonderful about the Church and what is often misunderstood. The misunderstanding occurs because people in sin (that's all of us, pretty much) tend to feel judged. Further, it is not often very useful to label them "sinners". This is especially true in an age which affirms much that is sinful as normative or even good.

Pope Francis and the synod have been working on a way to explain the good that is Catholic doctrine in a language which does not exclude, but invites; invites us all to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It is this threefold journey which essentially draws us all to conversion:
  1. The personal interior journey of a lived relationship with Christ.
  2. The ecclesial journey into the Church through reception of the sacraments of initiation.
  3. The journey of active practice (as evidenced by receiving the sacraments, attending Mass, and participating in the life and mission of the Christian community).
What is not believed or lived cannot be transmitted and thus Pope Francis is absolutely right to criticise  "inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises". This Pharisaical attitude was what Christ was so critical of; dry lip service without any real love of God or man behind it. We must be aware of this very human tendency to rigidly adhere to rules without understanding the love and freedom they are supposed to represent and deliver. If I am using the rules to pretend I am somehow better than my neighbour, or to act as if I know more than others or can tell them what to do, I are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13).

The rules exist to set us free despite the fact that in our society, law tends to be seen as restrictive, even oppressive. Paradoxically, the people of the Old Testament saw the law as a great privilege:
"He makes His Word to Jacob,
to Israel His laws and decrees.
He has not dealt thus with other nations;
He has not taught them His decrees"
Ps 147
As Jesus Himself explains, the rules are made for man not man for the rules (Mark 2:27; Matthew 15:9). Vatican II called for a return to Jesus as the firm foundation for all moral teaching. The problem was that afterwards, moral theologians simply attempted to force Catholic moral teaching to conform to modernity (cf. Pinckaers, S., O.P., Morality the Catholic View, Indiana: St. Augustine Press, 2003, p. 50). Pope St. John Paul II tried to sort this out in Veritatis Splendor, which defended universal moral laws, applicable at all times and among all peoples. This remains true regardless of their consequences and secondary circumstances. This solid foundation is what the Magisterium seeks to preserve at all costs!

The essential thing to keep in mind is that Catholic moral teaching is not a mere code of prescriptions and prohibitions. It is not something that the Church teaches merely to keep people obedient, doing violence to their freedom. Rather, Catholic morality is a response to the aspirations of the human heart for truth and goodness. As such, it offers guidelines that, when followed will make these aspirations grow and become strong under the warm light of the Gospel. Catholic morality is not by nature oppressive; nor is it in principle conservative. It seeks to educate for growth.

Thus the law is not so much a code of obligations, but a way to holiness open to all, even the humblest. So, as Melanie McDonagh pointed out earlier this week in The Spectator, it may just be possible that the Church, unconstrained as it is by temporal concerns or international politics, has useful things to say about our collective inability to sustain marriages, or indeed permanent relationships at all. It may not be the Church that has failed to achieve our secular, enlightened understanding about relationships; but secular people who have failed to grasp important things about the family, about commitment, about the relations between generations. The question really is can secular people be objective and honest enough to impartially evaluate what the synod discussed, or will they be blinded by the prejudices and simply carp on about homosexuality? (Of course, objectivity isn't given much assistance when Cardinal Nichols simply jumps on the media bandwagon, but hey-ho).

The very first bit of the discussion paper, for instance, deals with the socio-cultural context for marriage right now. It talks about ‘an exasperated individualism’, the problem of solitude and crushing socio-economic circumstances, due to ‘precariousness in the workplace, or heavy taxation that certainly does not encourage young people to marriage’. How does that sound to you? Pretty spot on?

Deeper into the document, it discusses the promotion of ‘limitless affectivity’ – or what we might call emotional incontinence – as a problem for marriage. This is the childish attitude that sees marriage as being about "my" needs. In reality marriage is about sacrifice and service. And that ties in with the opening remarks about ‘exasperated individualism’, which you might sum up as the state of mind that sees marriage as being ‘me, me, me.’ And my feelings. Again, it makes pretty good sense for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

My prayer is that both Catholics and non-Catholics alike, have the courage to leave their prejudices behind and consider the work of the synod with integrity in terms of what the law can deliver in the service of our world, without compromising those universal moral laws which seek to free and empower all of us. My fear is that in reality, and as evidenced by Paul and my mum, all that has happened is that everyone is more confused.


  1. An excellent article Mark. Thank you. At the moment too many of our senior shepherds seem to limit their public pronouncements to reactive responses to secular media barbs. What has happened to proclamation of the Good News?


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